For four days after Madhya Pradesh’s farmers launched their agitation on June 1, dumping milk and vegetables on roads and damaging vehicles, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s BJP government was unmoved. Only when clashes in Sehore, Indore and Bhopal districts left six policemen injured on June 4 did the government act.
But instead of inviting all major farmer organisations leading the agitation for talks, the chief minister engaged with just one – the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, which, like the BJP, is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Chouhan announced the end of the stir, claiming the farmers were satisfied with a slew of relief measures he offered as part of the deal.
As it turned out, only the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh was satisfied. The Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh, Kisan Union and three smaller farmer organisation insisted on continuing the agitation until the government agreed to their two main demands – loan waiver and remunerative price for farm produce. Immediately, the protesting farmers began to be called “anti-social elements” and, on June 5, Chouhan warned they would be “firmly” dealt with.
The next morning, six farmers were shot dead in Pipaliya near Mandsaur. Home Minister Bhupendra Singh quickly appeared on TV and blamed the firing on “anti-social elements” backed by the opposition Congress. This “Congress as instigator” line became the BJP’s de facto position as everybody from central ministers Venkaiah Naidu and Narendra Singh Tomar to state spokespersons repeated it with varying degree of vehemence.
“Farmers do not resort to violence,” declared Naidu. “It is the Congress which is creating trouble to malign the Shivraj Singh government for political mileage.”
The chief minister echoed this position when he appeared on TV and urged people not to be swayed by “rumour-mongers”.
Bhupendra Singh reappeared on TV news channels Thursday and declared that peace had returned and “those still bent on vitiating the atmosphere aren’t farmers but Congress-supported troublemakers”. This time, though, he admitted the farmers had been killed by the police. “It was investigated and proved that the death of the farmers happened because of police firing,” he said. “Initially, the details provided to me were that police firing did not cause them. I amended my statement after receiving correct information.”
Claiming the bloodshed was the result of “administrative failure” in Mandsaur, he said his government had removal District Collector SK Singh and Superintendent of Police OP Tripathi “as corrective measure to restore confidence of the people”.
Such administrative changes have helped restore calm in much of strife-torn western Madhya Pradesh, but Mandsaur, the epicentre of the violence, remains on the boil despite being curfewed since June 6. On Thursday, a mod vandalised a toll collection booth and made away with Rs eight lakh in cash.
The political blame game, though, is still on. While the BJP refuses to accept that anyone other than “Congress’ goons” were responsible for the violence, the main opposition party calls the Chouhan regime “murderer of innocent people”. The home minister claimed he has “hundreds of proofs” of the Congress’ “direct involvement” but declined to share any.
Some TV channels have aired a video clip as “proof” of the Congress’ alleged involvement. Purportedly, it shows a police official accusing Congress MLA Jeetu Patwari of reneging on his promise to keep peace during the farmers’ protest in Indore. But the video predates the Mandsaur firing, which triggered widespread violence in the city.
The police have booked at least 60 people for allegedly inciting the violence in Mandsaur but none is a worker of the Congress, officials said.
Several Congress leaders have tried to enter Mandsaur over the past two days to meet the families of the dead farmers but none succeeded, including former MP from the district Meenakshi Natrajan and the party’s vice president Rahul Gandhi
Asked about the BJP’s allegation, a senior state Congress leader said, “If the allegation were not so macabre, the Congress might have been tempted to profusely thank the ruling party for vastly overestimating its decrepit rival’s capacity for mobilising people on such a large scale.”
The Congress is indeed a near-spent force in Madhya Pradesh. In every election since 2003, the party’s strength has diminished. In the last election in 2013, it barely retained 58 seats in the 230-member house. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the party won just two of the 29 seats, leaving its organisation set-up in disarray and the cadre demoralised.
Hope amid despair?
The farmer agitation has raised the opposition party’s hopes. The Patidars, who are spearheading the agitation, are the BJP’s core supporters. Of the six dead farmers, five are from the Patidar community. In Gujarat, too, the Patidars, led by Hardik Patel, have been agitating against the state’s BJP regime. Significantly, Patidars are affluent farmers who have generously bankrolled the BJP in successive elections.
The prospect the Patidars could desert it in the next assembly elections – later this year in Gujarat, in 2018 in Madhya Pradesh – has rattled the BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, it is a straight contest between the BJP and the Congress, so one party’s loss by default means the other’s gain.
This explains the BJP’s concerted attempt to blame the Congress for the violence rather than the Patidar farmers. Indeed, to mollify the community in the wake of the killings, the Chouhan regime took two unprecedented steps. One, it declared an unheard of Rs one crore ex-gratia for the families of the dead. Two, it reportedly restrained the police from using force against the rioters in Mandsaur. So, on June 7, while the police looked the other way, hooligans ran riot, torching factories, buses and trucks. It was only when the situation went out of hand that the government requisitioned additional paramilitary forces. The Rapid Action Force and riot police quickly restored calm.
Whether the BJP manages to retain the support of the Patidar community or not might well decide the next election in 2018.
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of seats that the Congress had won in the 2013 state assembly elections and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Madhya Pradesh.